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Leading international business schools are wrestling with a challenge: women. Schools recognise that women are a big potential growth market, yet their efforts to attract more female students are making little headway.

The numbers remain low, at little more than 30 per cent of MBA students on average. This is despite the fact that women account for a majority of university graduates across the developed world and companies are taking heed of studies that link the presence of women in senior management with greater profitability.

New research by London Business School in the UK into the experiences of MBA students, helps to explain the persistent gender imbalance and shows that different approaches are needed to tackle the problem.

The research, based on in-depth interviews with 10 male and 10 female students at a leading international school, demonstrates how the masculine environment still makes it harder for women to fit in. It also shows that both the male majority and the female minority of students appear to accept as an inevitability that business is done according to male rules.

“There were many comments about ‘playing the game’ and ‘having to do business like a man’,” says Elisabeth Kelan, research fellow at the Lehman Brothers Centre for Women in Business at LBS, who carried out the research with Rachel Dunkley Jones.

“One reason why women are not joining business school is that they cannot identify with the image of the manager as masculine and might not want to practise this form of masculinity when at business school.”

Management education contrasts with fields such as medicine or law, which women are entering in roughly equal numbers to men. Although there have been annual fluctuations, the number of women attracted to big international business schools has not changed much since the 1980s, says Ms Kelan. This is despite increasing attention being paid to gender diversity by benchmarks such as the Financial Times’ Global MBA rankings.

The LBS study was framed as an investigation into students’ experiences and aspirations. Among many questions, they were asked about the gender imbalance at the school, whether it mattered to them, how they explained it and what difference a more even ratio of women to men would make.

The students were at different stages of a two-year MBA programme at the unnamed school, where 70 per cent of students and 80 per cent of teaching staff are men and which serves as a recruiting ground for investment banks and management consulting firms. The interviewees, with an average age of 30, represented a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities. Ten were single or divorced, 10 had partners and one had children.

Women’s club

Although this is qualitative research, Ms Kelan believes the findings are applicable to other top-ranking global schools.

They found that women students play down their gender as a way of blending in. One says she does not belong to the women’s club “because women don’t do business, men do. So if you . . . want to do business, you have to learn to play business like a man, in a way.” Another says it is not a problem that most case studies on the programme are about men because “that’s just the way the world is”.

“The students told us gender doesn’t matter but their experience indicates that it does,” says Ms Kelan. “A lot of the young men said: ‘I want to be an involved father but that’s not an appropriate option in the business world because the emphasis is still on the male’s breadwinning role’.”

One female interviewee describes as “vaguely annoying” a man in her study group who makes frequent references to parts of the female body. She appears more unsettled by something else in his behaviour. “I’ve noticed that, if I say something, he will almost disagree with me instantly but, if then someone who’s male in the group says the same thing as me, he’ll happily adopt the view . . . [I’m] trying to get my head around that.”

Dimension

She has learnt to be more aggressive in the study group but says she found it initially exhausting to change her style. The researchers comment: “Rather than complaining about the sexist behaviour, it appears that her strategy has been one of adaptation and that, by taking on more characteristically ‘masculine’ traits, she has found a way to work more effectively with her male colleagues.”

The findings add a gender dimension to the intense debate among business school academics about the adequacy and effectiveness of management education. “There are more models for leadership than just the heroic leadership model of toughness, individualism and assertiveness,” says Ms Kelan.

“New leadership models need to leave room for men and women to enact a wide array of behaviours, not just those classified as masculine. Management education has to question how it is possible to train future business leaders in respect to diversity in a climate where explicit reference to gender diversity is not an acceptable repertoire.”

Why did the students in the study not see a link between the scarcity of women in business schools and the masculine environment? “We see what academics call post-feminism – the idea that feminism has achieved its goal and we have achieved equality,” says Ms Kelan. “You find this particularly among young women. There’s a belief that ‘we’ve dealt with gender’ but, if you talk to women, they tell you stories about how they have been discriminated against and these stories are very similar to [those of] the past.”

More subtle strategies are needed to challenge students to understand how gender shapes organisational culture and practices, the study argues.

Introducing examples of less traditional business women and men into the curriculum would show that “working with gender diversity is part of what it means to do business”. So would inviting people from diverse backgrounds to teach case studies.

Another approach is to include diversity training in induction programmes, says Ms Kelan. This would give students an understanding of their own biases and stereotypes and a reference point for their subsequent teamwork.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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